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Royal National College for the Blind

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Royal National College for the Blind
Royal National College for the Blind
Royal National College for the Blind
Royal National College for the Blind

The Royal National College for the Blind (RNC) is a co-educational residential college of further education based in the English city of Hereford. Students who attend the college are blind or partially sighted. Alongside regular further education subjects and vocational training, the college offers training in independent living and personal development. There are approximately 200 students whose ages range from 16 upwards.

Founded in 1871 in London as The Royal Normal College and Academy for the Blind, the college had a number of homes before moving to its present campus in Hereford, adopting its present name during the late 1970s. It is regarded as a leader in the education of people who are visually impaired and is the only college for visually impaired students in the United Kingdom to have been awarded Beacon Status. RNC is the home of the first football academy for visually impaired players and the England blind football team, and will host the 2010 World Blind Football Championship. It will also have a role in the 2012 Paralympic Games. The college is actively involved in the development of assistive technology to help visually impaired people in their day to day lives. Two notable devices developed at RNC are the Mountbatten Brailler, an electronic braille writer, and the Talking Tactile Tablet (T3), a talking tactile device which helps with the reading of maps and diagrams. RNC operates a leisure facility, thePoint4, which is used to train students and is open to the public. The National BlindArt collection is housed at RNC.

RNC has had thirteen principals since it was founded, the present being Geoff Draper, a former Colonel in the British Army who was appointed to the position on 7 December 2009. The appointment comes after a controversial period in the college's history, and following the resignation of the previous incumbent in 2008. RNC's campus underwent a significant redevelopment and modernisation programme during the first decade of the 21st Century, while the same period saw dramatic departmental restructuring and changes to some of the courses which are offered. This led to concerns being expressed by staff and students about the direction in which the college was being taken.

The college is a registered charity, its current Patron being Charles, Prince of Wales. There are also several high profile supporters. RNC has a number of notable people among its alumni, including former Home Secretary David Blunkett. The college is the subject of a 2007 documentary for the Channel 4 Cutting Edge documentary strand which follows three students through their first term of study. The film was the winner of a 2008 Royal Television Society Award.



Early years

The college was established in 1871 by the English philanthropist Thomas Rhodes Armitage and the American anti-slavery campaigner Francis Joseph Campbell, who lost his sight as a young boy.[1][2] Campbell had originally planned to establish a college for the blind in the United States, but was persuaded by Armitage that London would be a more suitable location.[3] At the time, English schools for the blind did not provide their students with the skills to become independent. Dissatisfied with this situation, Armitage dreamed of establishing a school whose emphasis was on music and which would prepare its students to become organists, piano tuners, and music teachers.[4]

With donations of £3,000 and the support of the British nobility,[4] the college opened for business on 1 March 1872 with two students.[5] Queen Victoria became its first Patron.[6] At the time of its founding, the school was called "The Royal Normal College and Academy for the Blind", the word "Normal" being an American expression referring to teacher training offered by the college,[1] with Campbell recruiting many of his teaching staff from the United States.[5]

The college was originally located in two small buildings on Anerley Hill near Crystal Palace in London, later moving to larger accommodation at Westow Street, Upper Norwood after rapidly outgrowing its original premises.[1] In its early days, the college was considered very progressive and experimental in its approach to education.[5][7] The curriculum was advanced for its time, and emphasis was placed on physical activities such as swimming, cycling and roller-skating.[7] By the end of the 19th century, the college had over 200 students.[5] For many years the college admitted school age students, and it was not until 1945 that the principal of RNC and head master of Worcester College for the Blind came to an agreement that Worcester would provide secondary education and RNC would take students over the age of 16.[8]


The 20th century saw the college move location several times. In 1978, suitable accommodation was found that would enable RNC to consolidate its teaching and residential accommodation into one campus, and the college moved to its current home in Hereford.[5][7] 1978 also saw the college adopt its present name of The Royal National College for the Blind.[9] RNC received an official opening at its new campus by Prince Charles in 1979.[10]

In the early 2000s the halls of residence at the Hereford campus underwent an extensive £1.5 million upgrade.[11] The blocks were originally built when the campus was being used as a teacher training college during the 1960s and were updated to include modern facilities such as larger student bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms and space for televisions and computers, and improved social areas.[12]

Following an inspection by the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) in 2005 RNC was one of only eight colleges in the UK to be awarded Learning and Skills Beacon Status in recognition of the outstanding quality of its teaching.[13][14] It is presently the only college for visually impaired students to have Beacon status, which is only given to educational establishments which have received a first-class Ofsted inspection report.[14][15] RNC was again praised by Ofsted in 2009 for its continued good progress when Inspectors graded the college as 'outstanding' across all six areas inspected and said it had gained ground since its last inspection in 2006.[16]

In 2006 the college announced an extensive expansion of its campus, including new halls of residence, a sports and complementary therapy building and a new outdoor floodlit sports pitch.[17] The £21.5m sports development will host the 2010 World Blind Football Championship.[18] A £10 million fundraising campaign, Building Brighter Futures, was created to raise the funds required to complete the project,[19] and construction work began in the summer of 2007.[20] The complex, thePoint4, which also includes a bistro and conference facilities, opened in April 2009 with plans for it to receive an official opening in June.[21] The facility was officially opened on 24 June by BBC sports presenter and Daily Mail columnist Des Kelly.[22][23] In 2008 the college was nominated as one of the sites for the 2012 Paralympic Games and will act as a pre-Games training camp for Paralympic athletes.[24][25]

The late 2000s saw RNC undergoing some significant restructuring as it responded to changes in the world of employment and therefore the courses that it offered its students.[26] However, some of the college's changes provoked criticism from staff and students who argued these were not in RNC's best interest.[27] There was some controversy over the college's decision to reduce the availability of courses in piano tuning, traditionally regarded as a secure profession for visually impaired people, while fears were expressed that the decrease in A Level subjects would lead to RNC becoming a sport rather than an academic orientated college.[24][26] The changes led to significant department reorganisations within RNC, with several staff members being summarily dismissed in the process. A number of former college employees made complaints regarding the manner in which their employment was ended.[26][28] In July 2008 the college lecturers union, the University and College Union called for greater consultation between management and staff at the college.[29]

Financial concerns were raised with the opening of the new leisure complex and because of a reorganisation of student funding from the Learning and Skills Council to Local Education Authorities. The college was facing a shortfall of at least £500,000 in 2009 and its auditors expressed doubt on RNC's ability to continue as a going concern.[30] In response, Ian Pickford said that much of thePoint4's costs had been paid for through donations and that the shortfall issue was being addressed through cutbacks, including some redundancies.[30]

In September 2009 the college became the permanent home of the National BlindArt Collection, a collection of paintings, sculptures, installations and other works of art designed to engage all the senses and to provide people who are visually impaired with greater accessibility to art.[31]

In February 2010 the college secured a £90,000 grant from the Learning and Skills Improvement Service to install a music video production studio which will enable bands to record material and showcase their work.[32]

In March 2010 it was reported that RNC would launch a drive to attract visually impaired students from the Middle East and North Africa region to study at the college.[33]

Assistive technology

The college has been actively involved in the development and use of assistive technology to aid visually impaired people in their everyday lives. For example, working with a United States based software engineer, RNC produced the T3 (Talking Tactile Tablet), a touch sensitive device for interpreting tactile images such as diagrams, charts and maps.[15] The device is connected to a computer and run with a programme CD, and has a tactile surface which produces touchable icons that provide audio feedback when they are pressed.[34] The device was originally developed for educational purposes but can be adapted for other uses. In 2005 Hereford Museum and Art Gallery became the first in the United Kingdom to invest in the technology.[35]

The Mountbatten, an electronic Braille writing machine and embosser, was pioneered and developed at the college by Ernest Bate.[36][37] Work began on the project following a bequest in the will of the late Lord Louis Mountbatten for the development of a modern, low cost, portable brailler.[38] It has been available since 1991,[39] and is manufactured by a company based in Australia.[39]

In the early 1990s two RNC lecturers, Clive Ellis and Tony Larkin, invented the Hoople, a hoop-shaped mobility aid for blind people which performs a similar role to a white cane, but is designed for use in a rural environment and on rough terrain.[40]

RNC lecturer Nigel Berry designed the Fingerprints Braille course,[41] which was first published in 1993 and is now widely used to teach adult beginners to touch-read and write grade 2 Braille.[42]

RNC is involved in the RoboBraille project which allows visually impaired Internet users to have text translated into Braille and MP3 audio format via email.[43] The system, developed in Denmark, was launched in June 2006 and won a British Computer Society Social Contribution Project Award in 2007.[43] ClearText, which enables visually impaired users to browse the web more easily, was developed in conjunction with the college.[44]

In 2009 RNC lecturer Tony Sales developed Vinux, an accessible version of the Linux operating system for the visually impaired.[45]


RNC provides both full time and shorter courses in vocational and academic subjects for approximately 200 students aged 16 and above.[46] Courses vary in length from a few weeks to two years.[47] There are no formal academic requirements for entry into RNC, but potential students are invited to attend an assessment at the college before being offered a place in order to determine the level of support they will need during their studies. The assessment typically includes an evaluation of a person's level of vision, their mobility and independence skills, any residential support they may require, basic literacy and numeracy skills tests, and an interview with the leader of the course they wish to take.[48]

Courses are designed to prepare visually impaired students for progression into further education, university or employment. The development of independent living and personal skills is also encouraged.[49] The college is divided into several different areas of study:[50]

  • Leisure, Therapies and Sport (including courses and qualifications in massage, complementary therapies, and sport treatment and management)
  • Music, Media, Performance and Art (including courses and qualifications in music technology, media and art)
  • Information and Communication Technology (including courses and qualifications in office skills and the European Computer Driving Licence)
  • Business, Administration and Customer Service
  • General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (A-Level) qualifications
  • Skills For Life (including Braille reading)

Traditionally courses in piano tuning and piano technology were also available at the college. However, these have been significantly reduced in recent years due to a decline in the number of students studying the subjects. There has also been a reduction in the number of A levels available for study due to changes in the types of courses education funding bodies supporting students at RNC are willing to provide funds for.[26][27]

RNC began to offer its first Higher education qualification in January 2010 with the launch of the Certificate in Higher Education: Working with People with Visual Impairment programme. The qualification is offered in collaboration with St Joseph's Centre for the Visually Impaired in Dublin and the University of Worcester.[51]

Extracurricular activities

RNC is the home of the first football academy for visually impaired players.[52] The Football Academy was officially opened in August 2008 by former England footballer Sir Trevor Brooking and offers visually impaired students the opportunity to include football as part of their study programme with a view to playing the game at a national level.[52][53] The college is the home of the England blind football team, which is supported by the Football Association and coached by former professional footballer Tony Larkin.[54] RNC is helping to develop a national blind football league.[55] As well as football, blind cricket is also played at the college, and RNC has its own cricket team,[56] which competes in the British Blind Sport (BBS) National Cricket League.[57] The college also features acoustic shooting,[52] a sport which uses air rifles fitted with photoelectric cells which convert light reflected from targets into sound.[58][59]

As well as football, cricket and acoustic shooting, students at RNC can participate in a wide range of other sporting and athletic activities, including horse riding, swimming, ten pin bowling, weight training, circuit training and martial arts.[60] Away from sport, the Students' Union organises regular events such as karaoke, pub quizzes, cabaret and live bands.[60] There are shopping excursions and trips to cinema, theatre and Premier League football matches, while clubs and societies include a Dining club and the RNC choir.[60]


As well as being one of its founders, Francis Joseph Campbell served as RNC's first principal from 1871 until his retirement in 1912.[5] He was knighted as a Knight Bachelor by King Edward VII in 1909.[2][61] The honour was bestowed on him for his services to blind people.[4] He was succeeded by his son, Guy Marshall Campbell, and following his death in 1929 Guy's widow, Louie Bealby Campbell took over the position.[5] The role of principal passed outside the Campbell family for the first time upon Louie Bealby Campbell's retirement in 1934.[5] Since then a number of individuals have held the position. Lance Marshall was principal at the time the college moved to its Hereford campus in 1978.[7] In the late 2000s Christine Steadman oversaw the college's restructuring during her tenure as principal of RNC, which proved to be unpopular with staff and students.[27] She resigned in November 2008. The present incumbent is Geoff Draper, a former British Army Colonel who was appointed to the position on 7 December 2009.[62]

Notable people and alumni

The college is a charitable organisation and is registered with the Charity Commission, the government body which oversees charities in England and Wales. It has a number of high profile supporters which include Charles, Prince of Wales, who is the current Patron, a position he has held since 1997.[63] The current president is the Hon. Mrs White,[64] and there are several public figures who serve as vice presidents. These include the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, the Archbishop of Westminster, Countess Mountbatten of Burma and Michael Buerk.[64]

Graduates of the college include David Blunkett, British Labour Party politician and former Home Secretary,[65] and Alfred Hollins, English composer and organist.[66] Giles McKinley, who starred in a groundbreaking television commercial for Sauza Tequila during the 1990s, is a former RNC student.[67] The actor Ryan Kelly (actor)|Ryan Kelly, who in 1997, became the first completely blind student to join the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School,[68] and plays the role of Jack 'Jazzer' McCreary in BBC Radio 4's The Archers, attended RNC.[69] The Paralympic cyclist Anthony Kappes also studied at the college.[70]


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